Road-trip through West Bali
Need to know
The Indonesian name for West Bali National Park is Taman Nasional Bali Barat, and some guidebooks list it under this name. To get to the park from the main tourist areas in the south, take the road towards Tabanan, then head west towards Gilimanuk. Traffic can be very unpredictable in Bali, and the drive to Gilimanuk could take between three and five hours.
The park’s head office is in Gilimanuk and there’s a ranger station at Labuhan Lelang; you can hire a guide from either of these two points, and you have to have one to enter the park. As with many things in Bali, the fee can be negotiated but you can expect to pay around IDR650,000 a day for a guide, including entrance fee. An easier option is to ask your hotel to set it up.
Facilities in the park are minimal – a few shelters at ranger stations for shade, and very basic ablutions. It is geared more towards day visits than overnight stays and unless you’re well equipped for camping, it will be easier to stay in one of the hotels close to the park.
This website has been created (and is continually updated) by Mark and Narina, two professional travel writers and photographers who have been based in West Bali for the past two or three years. We love this quiet, evocative part of the island and created this site to share a very special part of the world with travellers who're wanting to explore the Bali that few foreigners ever visit.
There is a certain point along the road in west Bali where the sticky tar swoops down and the tangled jungle opens suddenly onto a sunlit patch of river. Whenever I reach this point, I always take my eyes off the potholes for just a moment because I know that if I look to the right, there will be Balinese women wrapped in bright sarongs, beating their washing on the rocks. I catch a quick glimpse of them, before having to slip down a gear as my little jeep starts to climb up the other side of the valley, through familiar stacked shelves of lurid green rice paddies.
I’ve been travelling to Bali’s isolated southwest coast regularly over the last decade and by now I feel that I could do the drive blind-folded. But that would be such a waste, as this is surely one of the world’s most fascinating little road-trips.
Very few tourists ever explore western Bali but, along with the rich culture and dramatic scenery of the other areas, the ‘wild west’ also boasts the last real Balinese wilderness and some of the most dramatic wildlife spotting in South East Asia. Caught up as they are in the triangle of Kuta nightlife, Nusa Dua beaches and Ubud craft stalls, few travellers even imagine that they are missing out on the most exciting (and certainly cheapest) road-trip they’re ever likely to make. You can rent a Suzuki Jimny (known here, rather flatteringly, as a ‘jeep’) for less than it costs to cross London on the Underground, and you can fill the tank for the price of a West End cinema ticket. Stop at a roadside eatery for a delicious plate of nasi goreng and a fresh fruit-juice then break the journey again for a beer and a traditional massage, and there’ll still be change from a tenner.
While negotiating Kuta’s traffic might be a challenge, it will never be boring. The swarm of motorbikes includes a fascinating collection of mobile baksostands (entire soup-kitchens fitted over the pillion seat) and people carrying everything from widescreen televisions to bird cages, chickens, gas bottles, and often even a family of five (plus dog) on a scooter. Just keep moving westwards and you’ll see that the traffic thins out long before you reach the great sweeping vista of the island’s largest and most spectacular expanse of terraces. They ripple across the natural contours of the hillside like the fingerprints of the gods as they climb towards the sacred inland peaks. When the road descends to the coast again,it reveals a seemingly endless beach that is arched with majestic coconut palms.
While the paddies are the domain of great hulking water buffalo, the shaded palm forests and lush meadows are pastures for agile Balinese cattle. Descended from wild banteng cattle, they’re blessed at one end with the faces of doe-eyed gazelle and at the other with comical white rumps that give the impression that they’ve sat on freshly painted toilet seats.
The road from here swoops and winds in a rollercoaster ride through a series of traditional Balinese villages and Javanese kampongs. This cultural hinterland, with its mix of Hindu and Muslim people, nevertheless remains the most traditional part of ‘the island of the gods’. Buffalo teams still plough the paddies (and haul racing chariots at the weekends) and fishermen continue to decorate their boats with the fearsome carved heads that quell the spirits of the brash southern sea.
The main tourist attraction of this part of the island is for the surfers who come to ride the lefthand pointbreak at Medewi. Some stay for weeks – living on ₤20 a day (massage included) – without realising that the mist-shrouded hills that loom above the village is a true jungle wilderness waiting to be explored.
Even apart from the roadtrip or the surfari the absolute best reason to drive out west is to explore little-known West Bali National Park. Very few tourists are aware that this phenomenal wilderness regionof rainforest, savannah and reef even exists and there are not many islanders either who could point it out on a map, despite the fact that the 190 square kilometre park covers most of the western side of their island. Taman Nasional Bali Barat, to use the local name, was founded in 1941 in a tardy attempt to protect the local tiger population: by a sad twist of fate the last Balinese tiger was probably shot five years before the park opened.
The only access to the park for vehicles lies at the western tip of the island on the remote Prapat Agung Peninsula, just a stone’s throw across the strait from Java. It’s not technical off-road driving and while a serious four-wheel-drive is not strictly necessary, the deeply rutted dirt-track makes a vehicle with ground-clearance advisable.
Made Wirawan – one of a handful of tour operators who even appear to be aware of the park – runs 4x4 adventure trips to Prapat Agung section in expedition-prepared Land Rovers.
“While most of the park is classic rainforest, this far western part is almost completely waterless,” he explained as we rumbled down the dusty dirt-track. “It makes for particularly good wildlife spotting because the animalsalways stick close to water.”
Made eased the Landy to a halt at a shrine at the park boundary. Like any good Balinese Hindu, he always stops to make an offering to the spirits of the jungle. Deeper into the forest there are several large temples and no pilgrim would ever come into this sacred wilderness without paying homage to the guardian spirits at these shrines.
“I’m asking permission to enter the forest,” Made explained as he prepared an ornate offering of rice and flowers. “Also I’m asking them to grant us some sightings of exciting animals.”
Apparently Made’s request didn’t go unheeded because, even before we’d driven away, his offering had been stolen by a fat and wily old macaque that swung down out of the canopy. We drove slowly onward and in less than an hour we’d seen three types of deer (barking deer, sambar and mousedeer), wild pigs, a giant monitor lizard, and two of the park’s three resident primate species. West Bali National Park is notable among other things as the only place in the world in which it is possible to see the Balinese black monkey. It is also known to twitchers primarily as the last bastion of the beautifulBali starling, an avian dreamwithglossy white plumage and shocking blue eye-liner that has the dubious distinction of being officially listed as one of the world’s rarest birds.Hidden in the jungle is a bizarre ‘fortress’– complete with machine-gun watch-towers and a small army of Kalashnikov-toting guards– devoted to guarding an enclosure with 120 of these birds (valued at USD1000 each).
After a day spent with Made Wirawan, I chartered a small boat to take me from the north coast to remote Brumbun Bay where the world’s only flock of wild Bali starlings flutters in freedom. Little gaggles of sparkling white starlings flitted through our camp (there are an estimated 80 here) and majestic Sambar deer came down to cool their ankles on the shallow reef. The tracks of civet and what the Balinese call kuchinghutan (jungle cat) dotted the sand. The rains had come late so the vegetation was still thick and water lay everywhere on the normally dry peninsula, yet it seemed that I couldn’t walk for more than five minutes in any direction without seeing wildlife.
I figured that up in the mist-shrouded peaks of the central section of the park, things might not be so promising so I called up an old friend who might be the best jungle guide in Bali. Made Budha Yasa is head guide at Puri Dajuma lodge and he occasionally leads anything from a short half-day hikes to a full-blown jungle-camping expeditions. By the time I drove up to Puri Dajuma to meet him, Made had already handpicked a team of similarly enthusiastic assistants and arranged for our permits from the park headquarters. Balinese are natural craftsmen and I’d commissioned specially made jungle-hammocks (made to my own specifications with fitted mosquito nets and rain covers) that I was keen to test on this trip.
We hit the road before daybreak and shortly after dawn were already climbing above the last of the terraced paddy fields and into semi-wild plantations, where we boosted our energy with bananas, hairy rambutan litchis and weird scaly snake-fruits. At the edge of the jungle itself, Made stopped beside a majestic old banyan tree and tied on his ceremonial headdress and sarong. He placed a little woven basket of offerings at the base of the mighty trunk and lowered his voice in respect. His mumbled prayers seemed almost to dissolve into the swirling wisps of incense. Although I didn’t realise it yet, this was a ceremony that would be repeated at every campsite and resting place on our three-day trek. We could not begin clearing an area for our jungle hammocks before Made had made two tiny altars.
“That shrine will protect us from the ghosts and demons that haunt jungle clearings,” he explained, pointing to an offering nestled among the roots of an old tree. “And this one will show the gods that we bring no harm to the forest.”
Presumably both were necessary to show that in trimming a few saplings, clearing back the long grass for our camp and collecting a little dead wood for our rice and grilled chicken,we were acting with due respect.
Unfortunately it is not a respect that is shown by all in the region. Several times that afternoon we’d come across snares set for deer and giant ‘harp traps’ tied across the ridges to catch fruit-bats. The fruit bats are said to be tastiest when their meat has been sweetened by the mango season. The Balinese locals blame the poaching on new arrivals from Java, and overcrowding is certainly driving people to venture closer into the park.
Even despite the poaching activity I was astonished to find that this forest boasted what was certainly the best wildlife spotting I’d ever enjoyed anywhere in thick South East Asian jungle. Even in Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra I’d never been in jungle where wildlife was so constantly visible. Curious macaques followed us for much of the day and only abandoned us when a troop of rowdy black monkeys began screeching at them. We saw deer frequently and although skittish we often had surprisingly clear sightings.
As I lay in my hammock that night– gratefully cocooned above the leach-infested ground – I thought of a phrase that Made had taught me and which seemed to illustrate perfectly the respect with which the Balinese treat their ‘island of the gods’.
“Jatmadesaangertaningumin Ida Batara.” He translated slowly: “The people do not own the land – the gods have just leant it to us for safe keeping.”
The Balinese are justly proud of the island that is often described as the most beautiful in the world. They believe that when they die, heaven will be just like Bali.
With the growing population it is going to take action rather than sentiments to protect the park. While West Bali brings in so little tourist revenue, protection ofthe island’s biggest park seems tofall far short of being a conservation priority. Only tiny Menjangan Island (off the north coast but still technically part of the park) attracts significant visitors who come to enjoy one of Asia’s greatest diving experiences. There are those who say that tourism is the only real hope for wildlife in this region, where the population is growing so rapidly. As more visitors arrive to experience this unexpectedly wild side of hidden Bali, the poachers will be forced to look for another way to survive and perhaps (as has been the case in similarly afflicted parts of Africa) they can eventually find work as experienced jungle guides.
“We have a long walk ahead of us.” Made smiled next morningas he handed me a steaming cup of black Balinese coffee. “But no hurry. Adeng adeng – slowly-slowly. It’s the Balinese way…”
His voice was interrupted by a strange chugging sound filtering down through the canopy. As it came closer the sound reminded me of something from my past. Then it dawned on me; it sounded exactly like a commuter train pulling into Kings Cross Station. But my life in London was half a world away and as two flapping shadows passed over the trees I realised that the sound came from the wings of a pair of hornbills.
All over Indonesia hornbills are considered birds of good omen. I looked over at Made to see that my smile of delight was reflected on his face too.